Effects of Alcoholism and Addiction on Love and Marriage
Alcoholism, Addiction, and Roller Coasters
Long before my 4-year stint as a drug-and-alcohol counselor, I discovered what life with an alcoholic or addict (or in my case, both) can be like. Along the way, I've also learned how they're different from healthy, happy relationships.
One of the big differences is what I call the roller-coaster effect. The roller coaster is what kept me in chemically-dependent relationships with the two men who occupied six of my younger years.
Imagine driving down the Interstate on a very long trip—one that we'll call "marriage." During our marriage journey, we may run into stormy weather occasionally, hit a pothole, experience a detour, or take time to refuel. Although we don't necessarily like dealing with these challenges, we expect them to happen from time to time, and we adjust to them pretty easily. We have faith the storm will pass. We feel glad that there aren't many potholes or detours. Refueling might have eaten up a few minutes of our time, but we feel secure knowing we can travel quite a distance without running out of gas.
Stable, healthy marriages are like that road trip. They're a bit mundane in many ways, but they have a destination and a partner who's making the journey with us.
Relationships in which one or both partners have an addiction are more like roller coasters. We anticipate excitement even before we step in for a ride. As we buckle in, we feel a bit of anxiety and fear, but we hardly notice it because we're thinking about how fun it's going to be. As the ride begins, we climb toward a peak, savoring the feelings of expectation we have. As we plunge to the very bottom, we feel almost sick, disoriented and maybe a bit roughed up, but we're soon climbing again.
Addiction in a relationship or marriage brings more intense interactions—both the good ones and the bad—than healthy relationships do. Those high points almost seem addictive themselves, because they're just so, so, so very good. (Did you notice that sexy growl as I typed those words? Boy, I did!)
Are those ups worth it? Maybe they are, at least for a while. Over time, as that roller coaster keeps going around and around, though, it may start making the rider ill. No matter how sick he or she feels, though, the ride keeps going and the passenger gets sicker.
Should I Stay in This Addicted Relationship?
Only you can decide whether or not the good outweighs the bad. If you're considering leaving, or wishing things would change, there are some important considerations you shouldn't ignore.
Addiction is a disease, and its primary symptom is denial.
Even if the addict or alcoholic knows that they cannot control their use, the disease forces them to protect their addiction. Their responses to minimize the amount they drank, blame others, and protect their "right" to drink are automatic behaviors for a person who isn't in treatment and recovery.
Consider for a moment what happens when you put on your shoes. Do you have a conversation with yourself? "I'm going to put on my right shoe first. I need to loosen the laces. Now that I've loosened the laces, I can put my foot inside. My foot's in. Ok, time to tighten and tie the laces...."
Of course you don't! You probably don't remember much detail about how you learned to put on shoes, but you not only learned, you've practiced enough that when you need to wear shoes, you go through a series of actions and thoughts so quickly you don't consciously recognize them.
The same is true for addiction. It's a deeply learned, ingrained series of thoughts and behaviors that lead to an end result - the experience of being high or drunk. Unlike the task of putting on shoes, though, the motivation to use has also been learned and practiced until it's automatic.
Can you unlearn how to put on your shoes? Yes, you could find a different way, but it wouldn't be easy, and it would take a very long time for your new methods to become automatic responses.
This is what your loved one faces in order to stop using. Then, he or she must go through the same process for each dysfunctional behavior that gets in the way of your relationship. It's no wonder so many alcoholics and addicts don't recover!
Addiction means your loved one's primary commitment is not to you.
It never will be. That's the nature of addiction. Protecting their drug of choice truly becomes the most important thing in the addict's life. They know it shouldn't be that way, and they'll rationalize that it's not, make promises, try to show that they value other things more, but their methods fail as long as their addiction is still active.
This means you must develop codependent traits to survive.
People who love someone that loves something else - a substance, a career, or an activity like gambling - often have codependent personalities before they entered the relationship, but may develop those traits because of the relationship.
Take this quiz to see if you may be codependent:
Codependency: How It Affects Our Lives
Healthy relationships are like the capital letter A. Both individuals lean toward each other, are connected on multiple levels, but they each are connected to the world around them from their own viewpoints.
Independent relationships are a bit different. I like using the capital letter H to illustrate independent relationships. Each person is connected to the world in their own way, too, but they don't come together. They have certain things that connect them - financial entanglements or children, perhaps, but otherwise, they live separate lives.
Codependent relationships resemble the capital letter I. They are so intertwined with each other that it's hard to see the two people as individuals. People in codependent relationships often feel as if they've lost their sense of identity. They find that the "rules" seem to change without notice, so that something that was fine yesterday is cause for an argument today.
In codependent marriages, one person is often over-committed to the relationship, while the other is under-committed. The codependent person will often tolerate neglect and abuse in order to keep the relationship alive. They may become abusive and demanding while trying to make their partner "behave" better. They get a sense of power and feel superior when their partner has "screwed up again," but in reality, they fear they're not worthy of love. Those moments of superiority usually take place when they rescue their loved one, and the appreciation they get in return is weak proof of their lovableness or worth.
Others consider them to be a "strong person," but they feel alienated from most people. Instead of finding good, long-lasting solutions to problems, their marriages are marked by ongoing conflict. Their support channels are usually friends (they may have quite a few) who tell them what they want to hear - that it's the other person's fault - without giving them real tools for change, like encouraging them to attend Al-Anon meetings where they can learn how not to experience so much depression, resentment, and disappointment in their lives.
What to Do
If you suspect a loved one has an addiction, and you don't want to stay mired in continuous conflict and negative emotions, help is readily available. Best of all, it's free and available nearly everywhere.
Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and CoDA are self-help groups that can help you develop your lifestyle so that you can find joy again, even if you stay in your relationship. To learn more about these organizations and find meetings in your area, check out the links below:
- Welcome: CoDA Home Page
Because codependency isn't always related to drugs or alcohol, CoDA meetings can be helpful for people involved with addicts, abusers, or compulsive behaviors. Find a meeting or download a newcomer packet from this page.
Nar-Anon is a worldwide organization for people who love someone who's addicted to drugs. This site will introduce you to the way Nar-Anon works and help you find a group in your area.